Connections — And a Few Mysteries
I love making connections, especially historical ones. They serve as a good reminder that the craftsmen, craftswomen, artists, designers and artisans we collect, enjoy and live with did not work in isolated vacuums.
Dick Blacker, a well-known and highly-respected collector of Roycroft books, has related the story of a phone call he received years ago from a man with a trunk full of Roycroft books he was hoping to sell. “I was courteous and asked if he could give me an idea of what he had. The first book he mentioned was Ali Baba, a very nice book. The second was also good. Then he said, reading the title, “And this one’s called The Bibliomaniac.”
“I froze. A book by that name had been listed in one of the early Roycroft catalogues, but I knew of no institution or collector who had a copy. Now he really had my attention. He then went on to list a few more titles, all better than average limited editions. I said I was interested and we set up an appointment.
“On Saturday, after a sleepless night, we climbed up five flights to the apartment. The place was dark, sparsely furnished, and I had the distinct feeling that there were several people still sleeping somewhere in it. We sat on the floor next to a large suitcase. He opened it and proceeded to hand me the Roycroft books one at a time. The first was the Ali Baba, an exceptional copy. The next was also a limited edition, in equally fine condition. And next he handed me the Bibliomaniac. It was a smallish, suede-bound book with a water stain on the cover. I noted immediately that it had a leather edge signifying a book of some distinction. The title page was dated March 27, 1908. The following page had a cryptic dedication, and then I turned to the next page. I read…(to myself)…and froze…again!
“Of this edition only two copies were printed of which this is Number One.”
“It was a few moments before I was able to unclench my eyes and teeth, defense mechanisms necessary to help stifle the rising scream that would surely have awakened the building. ‘This is really terrific,’ I heard myself squeak. A few more books emerged, observed in a daze. THEN…He handed me another suede-bound, leather-edged book entitled A Myth by A. N. Idlyr, obviously a Hubbard pseudonym. I had never heard of this book, dated March 27th, 1907. The title page was hand-illumined and when I turned to the next page I read,
“Of this edition only two copies were printed, of which this is Number One.”
I said that I wanted to buy all the books and made an offer that I hoped he couldn’t refuse. Would he respond with the dreaded “Sounds good; let me think it over for a few days,” or “I’m waiting for another offer and I’ll let you know.”
Instead, he accepted! His son, now awake, helped me carry the books down to my car and I drove home to Connecticut on a beautiful fall day — at about four miles per hour.”
So, what’s the connection in Dick’s story?
Turns out the man who sold Dick the Roycroft books had previously owned The Inn at Stone City, not far from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Inn had once served as home to Grant Wood’s famous Art Colony in 1932-33 and the books had been found in a closet in Grant Wood’s apartment there.
What was Grant Wood’s connection with Elbert Hubbard?
Think about this: in 1907 Elbert Hubbard writes a book, but has only two copies printed and bound in leather. Just two copies. And the revered first copy eventually ends up in the hands of Grant Wood, at that time a 16-year-old in Iowa.
And it happens again in 1908 — with no evidence of a young Grant Wood making the journey to East Aurora….
In 1910 Grant Wood did leave Iowa to attend metalsmithing classes at the Handicraft Guild in Minneapolis, where California Arts & Crafts proponent Ernest Bachelder taught. In 1913 he moved to Chicago to take classes at the Art Institute. To support himself he got a job at the Kalo Silver Shop in Oak Park. In 1914 he left the shop and became a founding partner with fellow silversmith Kristopher Haga in a new enterprise, the Volund Shop, where they created hand-hammered sterling silver hollowware for just 18 months.
In 1915 Grant Wood tired of the Chicago scene and returned to Cedar Rapids, where he embarked on a career as an artist.
The Arts & Crafts world lost a good silversmith, but in return we got American Gothic — and Self-Portrait.
But how did he get the first copy of two of Elbert Hubbard’s first editions – of which only two were printed?
Connections. Look for them.
Until next Monday,
Have a great week!